A paradise with plenty of surprises
The last thing you expect to see as you sit at the bar, looking outover the sea and slurping a cocktail, is a plane headed straighttowards you.
The last thing you expect to see as you sit at the bar, looking out over the sea and slurping a cocktail, is a plane headed straight towards you.
Such narrow brushes with disaster are what makes the Sunset Beach Bar in Sint Maarten so much fun, however. It is right next to Maho Beach, which is arguably the scariest stretch of sand in the world.
Just behind the beach is a small road, and then comes the airport runway. The planes — including the giant Air France jumbo — can turn pebbles into bullets with their jet blasts and their wheels almost drag through the sand.
It is partly such quirks that make the tiny Caribbean island of St Martin/Sint Maarten so much fun. It’s the world’s smallest divided landmass — the southern half of the 87 square kilometre island belongs to the Netherlands Antilles, and the northern half is an overseas collectivity of France.
There are no noticeable borders, but they still use the US dollar or Antillean guilder on the Dutch side and the euro on the French. At the silliest extreme, there is one hotel (the Captain Oliver at Oyster Pond) that has its main building in one country and attached restaurant in another.
But for such a small place, the variety is sensational. The capital of the Dutch side, Philipsburg, is a major haunt for cruise ship passengers. The shopping is duty free, and thus the stores on Front and Back Streets usually have a steady trade from bargain hunters.
Most fun is the Guavaberry shop on Front Street — it sells a whole host of locally made items, including the infamous Guavaberry liqueur.
Come carnival time at the beginning of May, however, Philipsburg is one big party zone. Those cruise ship passengers fancying some cheap electrical goods and t-shirts are in for a rude awakening. Hundreds of flamboyantly dressed locals pour down the streets to the sound of deafening calypso music.
The Dutch side is known as the party half of the island. It’s where most of the happy hours and all the casinos are. Drinks are cheaper, the vibe is rowdier and the nights go on longer. But the French side can throw a party too — it just feels a bit more like St Tropez than a Caribbean take on Las Vegas.
Orient Beach is one of a few stunners on the French side, but people come as much for the beachfront bars as the white sand and clear water. The Waikiki is a classic example — it’s the sort of place where millionaires will think nothing of taking all their friends to and dousing themselves in bottle after bottle of staggeringly expensive champagne. It’s best to sit back, watch, and hope you’re asked to join in.
The French side is unquestionably more upmarket than the Dutch. It’s bigger, less developed and home to the swankiest joints. It’s also the place to go for foodies. The village of Grand Case is essentially a giant luxury food hall. From the lolos (street stalls) to the most wallet-busting restaurants, it is nigh-on impossible to get a bad meal here. Huge levels of competition keep standards sky high, and it’s possible to eat out here every night for a month without visiting the same place twice.
To work that food off, it’s best to head to the interior. There are a few woodland hiking trails, and also Loterie Farm. This is home to the Flyzone.
Not for the faint-hearted, this is a series of precarious balancing acts and aerial slides between the trees. Using abseiling equipment, visitors teeter across dodgy rope bridges, shimmy like tightrope walkers on metal wires and wobble along clanging logs suspended way above the ground before zipping across the treeline.
It’s enormous fun, but then again, what isn’t on St Martin/ Sint Maarten? It’s one island with two countries and hundreds of ways to keep yourself entertained — just watch out for those planes.
Saint Martin/Sint Maarten
Stay: The most luxurious accommodation on the island is La Samanna, www.lasamanna.com. This is something of a celebrity hang-out and rooms start at an eye-watering $995 US per night. Cheaper guesthouse accommodation is available on the Dutch side in joints such as Carl’s Unique Inn, www.carlsinn.com, in Cole Bay. Rates start at $70 US per night.
Do: Flyzone is Loterie Farm, www.loteriefarm.net, while the place to watch the planes come in over a drink is the Sunset Beach Bar, www.sunsetbeachbar.com.
Info: www.st-maarten.com, www.st-martin.org